Posts Tagged ‘high school’

Inventing Ourselves

Thursday, October 18th, 2012

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser October 2012)

“You don’t have to suffer to be a poet.  Adolescence is enough suffering for anyone.” John Ciardi

My last few trips to the village of Mendocino have coincided with the lunchtime release of the children from the high school on the hill—dozens of young ones wandering singly and in groups down into the miniature commercial district to buy food and drink and to escape the air of confinement and regimentation that is so antithetical to the spirit of the young.

Some of the kids wander as far as Big River Beach to smoke pot or sunbathe or commingle with scruffy older boys and girls, some of whom are homeless, some simply at loose ends as they haunt the beach and headlands, waiting for Godot. But most of the high school kids go straight to their chosen food sources—Mendocino Market & Deli (across the street from the post office), Harvest Market, Frankie’s, the bakery, Moody’s, Mendo Burgers—purchase their goodies and boomerang back to campus where they scarf their food and socialize until the bell tolls for them to resume what we hope is meaningful education but fear is mind-numbing incarceration.

Watching this lunchtime parade of teens often puts me in mind of my own time in high school (1963-1967), a death-defying adventure in communal insanity, the insanity of puberty in America and the desperate search for a workable way to survive the frightening world of our parents and their fellow adult imbeciles who seemed hell bent on destroying the planet before we had a chance to write a good song or get laid.

I think it must be the costumes the Mendocino teens are trying on these days that most remind me of my own high school experience—that search for the perfect apparel to capture the essence of who we hope to be. Look! Here are three lovely young women walking shoulder to shoulder, each clutching a cell phone—a full-blown hippy, a quintessential geek, a scantily clad prostitute.

Hippy: So is your mom picking you up after school today?

Prostitute: Yeah, I have to get my fucking braces tightened.

Geek: I totally hate dentists.

Hippy: Can I like…get a ride with you?

Prostitute: If there’s room in the car, but she’ll probably have my sister with her cello and my brother with his trumpet and probably the dogs.

Hippy: Forget it.

When I went to high school, girls were not allowed to wear pants or shorts or short skirts or lingerie or sexy stockings, nor would they have been allowed to wear belly shirts had such things existed in those days—all of which the Mendocino girls are fond of wearing. But girls in my day were allowed to wear long skirts and fanciful blouses, the myriad forms and combinations of which ultimately became the signature attire of female hippies. Indeed, the rebellion against boring and constrictive clothing was a large part of the creative expression that defined the Sixties; and if clothes make the person, then hippies were certainly made, at least in part, by their looser and more colorful clothes.

 “Don’t laugh at a youth for his affectations; he is only trying on one face after another to find a face of his own.” Logan Pearsall Smith

When I was sixteen I was on the basketball and soccer teams, and I was also in plays and hung out with artists and musicians and poets, many of whom were among the first hippies, which meant I was a jock artist thespian hippy, though my standard mode of dress gave no hint of these affiliations. I wore blue jeans and mono-colored T-shirts and dirty white tennis shoes and a dull gray plasticized rain jacket; and I gave little thought to my appearance until one day I was having lunch with a bunch of gorgeously attired girls and boys of the artist musician poetry drama crowd, and Mona, who could (and often did) give me an erection with the merest glance, said, “Dear Mr. Odd, why so persistently dun? Wouldn’t you like to be just a little more peacock? Hmm? Please? For Mona’s happiness?”

Mona’s words struck deep (and that’s really how she talked, being one of the first truly gone potheads of my generation). I wanted to please her and I very much wanted to be more peacock than dun. Thus I was distracted for the rest of the day thinking about clothing, missed easy lay-ups during basketball practice, and was off my feed at supper, consuming a mere four thousand calories instead of my usual six thousand. I eschewed my homework for rummaging around in my closet, and finding nothing there I snuck into my parents’ bedroom and rummaged around in my father’s closet, something I had never done before.

To my surprise and amazement, at the end of a long line of conservative suits and ties, I came upon an old suede fawn-colored jacket with leather buttons and big pockets. I took it off the hanger, put it on, and felt embraced by angels. Wow! How had this amazing garment come to be among my father’s possessions, being so unlike anything I had ever seen my father wear?

“Hey, Dad?” I called, carrying my prize through the house. “Where are you?”

“He’s in the garage,” said my mother, transfixed by Perry Mason.

I opened the heavy gray door leading from the kitchen into the garage, a place of chaos and danger and probable tetanus where my father was standing amidst the rubble, soldering something.

“Hey, Dad,” I said, always more than a little afraid of him, “is this yours?”

He turned to me and his scowl gave way to a sheepish smile. “Oh, that old thing. That was my father’s smoking jacket. From the 1930’s. I had it cleaned, but…I never wore it. You want it?”

“Yes,” I said, wanting that jacket more than I had ever wanted anything since I’d wanted a bow and arrows (with real steel tips) when I was ten.

And the next day when I wore that old suede jacket over one of my father’s faintly pink dress shirts, I felt properly attired for the first time in my almost-an-adult life. I felt suave and creative and on my way to where I was supposed to be going, though I had no idea where that was. I felt strong and sexy and daring and unique, and less afraid than I usually felt. To my surprise, boys rather than the girls were the most overtly complimentary and envious, several asking me where I had purchased such a groovy thing, because they wanted one, too.

But the crowning moment came when I presented myself to Mona at lunch and she put down her Anais Nin (Delta of Venus) and took off her big red-framed glasses and wrapped her arms around me and gave me a phantasmagoric open-mouthed kiss and whispered, “Imagine such bed sheets.”

 “I never expected to see the day when girls would get sunburned in the places they do now.” Will Rogers

Teenage boys need little (or nothing) to arouse them, sexually speaking. When I was in high school one of my greatest challenges was getting from one class to the next without revealing my persistent erection. This, I think, was the real purpose of binders, shields to be held over our midsections as we moved along the crowded halls to that next desk under which we could conceal our tumescence. For as I said, a mere glance from Mona, or from any number of other young lovelies, would render me brain dead and ready to procreate; and that was in an era when school rules severely restricted the amount of flesh a young woman’s outfit might reveal.

Today there are numerous young women patrolling the streets of our hamlet who, with only the slightest alterations to their ensembles, might easily be mistaken for escapees from a Victoria’s Secret bra and panties photo shoot, which displays of pulchritude, for an old fart like me, are simply wonderful to behold and make me smile and sigh, innocently, of course, in much the same way I smile and sigh when I espy an osprey winging by overhead with a fat fish clutched in her talons or when I catch a glimpse of a mint condition 1956 turquoise Thunderbird or…that sort of thing.

And for those teenaged boys who must survive their long and tedious high school days sitting and standing in such close proximity to such generous displays of so much luscious female flesh, my sympathies run as deep as the deep blue sea.

Junior High

Thursday, February 9th, 2012

Wolf Me drawing by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2012)

“Hemingway never grew out of adolescence. His scope and depth stayed shallow because he had no idea what women are for.” Rex Stout

Today I fit several important pieces into the jigsaw puzzle of life, having found the first of those pieces a few days ago while I was at Mendocino K-8 School on Little Lake Road, shooting hoops despite the biting chill in the air and…

Wait. Doesn’t it strike you as remarkable, even astonishing, that in Mendocino of all places, a town known the world over as a seething vortex of artists and poets and potheads, that our K-8 school doesn’t have at least a mildly groovy name? Fantasia Archetype School. Raven Big Tree Learning Center. Earthling Haven Academy. Middle Earth Education Fulcrum. Doppelganger Nine. Fields of Elysium Lyceum. Mind Body Spirit Cognition Node. But I digress.

So…I was shooting hoops despite the biting chill when down the steps from the school to the playground came two people, a shapely young woman with hair of spun gold and a boy some four inches shorter than the young woman, a skinny, dorky boy with drab brown hair wearing a blue Mendocino K-8 School sweatshirt. And though I was a hundred yards away, I knew this boy and woman were courting, that they were the same age, numerically speaking, and that they were headed for the swings where many Mendocino K-8 junior high couples go to swing and flirt and talk about whatever junior high kids talk about these days.

Seeing these two physically mismatched lovebirds, I journeyed back through my memory archives to when I was a drab dorky boy in Eighth Grade and madly in love with three shapely young women who were, in every conceivable way (and I do mean conceivable), ready to hook up with men but found themselves surrounded by boys. And remembering those uneasy days of biological imbalance, when Lucy and Hannah and Shari were so obviously women while I and my male classmates were still so obviously boys, and having just finished reading The Old Way by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas for the third time, I suddenly understood why so many girls today turn into women well in advance of their male age peers, which understanding was the aforementioned first of several pieces I just today fit into the jigsaw puzzle of life.

“We hope to find more pieces of the puzzle which will shed light on the connection between this upright, walking ape, our early ancestor, and modern man.” Richard Leakey

I love the many-times-proven fact that every human being on earth is a direct genetic descendant of the Ju/wasi (Bushmen) of southern Africa, and I am so grateful that Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, a keen observer and gifted writer, dwelt among some of the last Ju/wasi to live in the Old Way so we may know how our ancestors lived prior to the ruination of the African savannah and the decimation of the original Ju/wasi way of life.

To quote from The Old Way (with Ms. Thomas’s permission), “If you happen to see a contemporary film or photo showing Bushmen dressed in skins, perhaps beside a small grass shelter or following a line of antelope footprints or handling a bow and arrow, you are seeing a reenactment. Today, nobody lives in the Old Way. All Bushmen, unless they put on skins for a photographer, wear the clothing of the dominant cultures—invariably Western dress for men, and Western or African dress for women—and none live by hunting and gathering, although with these activities they sometimes supplement their meager diet, which today is often cornmeal provided by the Namibian government as a welfare ration. They have jobs if they can get them, although many cannot; they listen to popular music on the radio, dance the popular dances, are influenced to some degree by Christianity, and are aware of the larger world and national politics.”

The Old Way is a record of daily life among one of the very last groups of Ju/wasi living as their predecessors (our predecessors) lived for at least thirty-five thousand years. And guess what? The junior high biological gender divide of our modern times did not exist among our people for those thirty-five thousand years.

“N!ai reached the menarche (began to menstruate) when she was about seventeen years old. At this time an important ceremony was held for her with eland music and dancing—a much more important ceremony than her wedding. But she and /Gunda (her husband) had no child for three years, when she was almost twenty. This was a very normal age for a Ju/wa woman’s first pregnancy.

“In the Old Way, the human population, like most other populations who live in the Old Way, had it own regulation. The strenuous work and absence of body fat prevented hunter-gatherer women from menstruating at an early age…”

In harmony with this biological truth, a Ju/wa man was not allowed to wed until he had killed an antelope, no easy feat even for a strong and experienced hunter. Thus most Ju/wa men spent the years before marriage growing into their full size and strength while acquiring skills that would enable them to provide antelope meat for their families and relatives.

 “Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle.” Lewis Carroll

When I was a little boy, my friends and I would pretend to be cowboys fighting Indians, the Indians being in the distance for us to shoot at with our pretend guns. When I was an older boy, my friends and I pretended to be American soldiers fighting Japanese and German soldiers, and these enemies, too, were in the distance for us to shoot at with our pretend guns. But when I played alone, I was always an Indian with a spear (fashioned from a grape stake or broom handle) and the bow and arrows I’d had since I was eight.

My childhood home stood on the edge of an abandoned estate, twenty acres of oaks and olive trees and overgrown vineyards and grasslands and ravines and chaparral teaming with wildlife—paradise. As far as I know, I was the only boy or girl in my neighborhood to habitually pretend to be an Indian; and there were certainly no other pretend Indians in our neck of the woods who took their pretending to the lengths I did. During those long summers when I was eight nine ten eleven and twelve, I lived for days on end in the wilds back of our house, barefoot and naked save for shorts, spending many a night camped out under the stars, with nuts and raisins and beef jerky for food, and a fire of twigs to keep me company as I gave voice to my invisible companions, wise old storytellers who knew everything there was to know about the animals and plants and spirits of that place.

I played tons of baseball with my friends and rode my bike all over the place, adventuring in the world of roads and stores, and I spent hours hunkered down in my bedroom with books, but no matter what else I might be doing, I longed to be in the woods, to follow a bird or butterfly to see where they might lead me; and to sit hidden and still for so long that the quail would forget I was there and resume their foraging around me, and a deer might appear close by, unaware of me, and I would be filled with wild joy knowing I might kill these animals if I needed to eat them to survive.

“I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing

than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance” e.e. cummings

I attended school and went insane with boredom, the teachings dead and useless, the only good parts of school being singing and drawing and recess and ball games and socializing with my friends and being secretly in love with girls. And until Sixth Grade all my classmates were boys and girls, and it was only midway through Sixth Grade and from then on that girls became women and boys remained boys, a division that reached a painful zenith in Seventh and Eighth Grade, otherwise known as junior high.

“and down they forgot as up they grew” e.e. cummings

The summer after Eighth Grade I was hired by a neighbor to move many tons of soil from his backyard to his front yard. I shoveled heavy brown dirt from a gently sloping hillside into a large wheelbarrow and wheeled that barrow a hundred yards up and over an incline to the dumping point. This labor—five hours a day—lasted two months and changed my fast-growing body from skinny boy to muscular young man. Then, with only a month remaining before I started high school, I spent two weeks camped in the woods with my spear and fires and beef jerky, knowing these were the last days of my childhood and never wanting them to end.

“and now you are and i am now and we’re

a mystery which will never happen again” e.e. cummings

The week before I started high school, I went to a party; and all the girls my age had become women. They saw I was no longer a boy; and Shari who had been a woman since Seventh Grade kissed me tenderly as we danced and led me outside into the moonlight and we kissed unto mindlessness, but beyond that I didn’t have a clue what to do and Shari was clearly frustrated and disappointed.

A few days later, the Saturday before high school began, I came home from my camp in the woods to find Hannah had come to visit, Hannah whom I had secretly loved since Fifth Grade, Hannah with womanly curves and beautiful breasts, Hannah with a deep musical laugh who always got my jokes when no one else did, Hannah who was my primary dream girl and fantasy lover.

We played ping-pong, and as we played I realized I was naked save for shorts, and Hannah was naked save for shorts and a negligible blouse. I had caught up to her, biologically speaking, and she had come to me—never having been to my house before—because she knew I had caught up to her, and because she liked me.

Somehow we went from playing ping-pong on the terrace to walking through the overgrown vineyard to a massive oak, and there we embraced and kissed and kissed some more until she whispered sweetly, “Hey, you wanna do it?”

“I…I…”

“I know how,” she said, her eyes sparkling. “And I can show you.”

I was thirteen. Looking back, seeing myself with Hannah in those last moments of childhood, I may wish I had allowed her to show me, but now that I have found and fit enough pieces into the jigsaw puzzle of life, I understand that I was not yet fully a man, not yet a killer of antelopes or the modern equivalent, and therefore not allowed to take a wife.

Transformation

Thursday, April 8th, 2010

(This memoir first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2010: photo by Marcia Sloane)

I have read a great deal about dreams and dreaming, and whether you believe dreams are communications from the astral plane or meaningless imagery resulting from cerebral out gassing, they can certainly remind us of people and places and things we have successfully avoided thinking about for the longest time.

I recently dreamt of being in high school again, and of a transformative moment in my less than excellent adventure there. My dream was a fair enactment of the event from my junior year, though the dream ended differently than the so-called real event.

I was a disinterested student suffering from the sudden onset of chronic pain in my lower back that ended my official athletic career in a heartbreaking twinkling. Verbally precocious, I was enrolled in Advanced English wherein my teachers persistently failed to see the genius behind my sloppy prose. In class discussions I invariably scored points with my classmates for wit and irony and double entendre while merely annoying my sadly average instructors on whom subtly and originality were invariably lost. Or so it seemed to my arrogant teenager’s mind.

My English teacher for my third year of incarceration was a very sad woman who never relaxed. Not in our presence. Ever. I will call her Mrs. R. She trembled when she spoke, as if she feared lightning would strike her for pontificating about things she clearly knew nothing about. She was not inherently stupid, but her anxiety rendered her so. Had she not so obviously disliked me, I might have been more compassionate toward her, but she anointed me her adversary from day one, and so we frequently did battle.

The contest, of course, was unfair. Mrs. R controlled the podium, so to speak, while I had all but a few of my fellow sufferers predisposed to my point of view. And I suppose if Mrs. R had merely been a dogmatic nervous Nellie, I wouldn’t have kept up the fight as long as I did; but she had a pet named V who was the grandest thorn in my high school side. Thus when I fought Mrs. R, I also fought V.

Why was V a thorn? Because she was my least favorite sort of sycophant: a perfect parrot, and she loved Mrs. R with a passion verging on the erotic, their heads being often together as they poured over books and poems and V’s insufferable essays that Mrs. R always deemed the best of the bunch so we always had to listen to V read her putrid prose aloud. And to make matters lethal for the miserable likes of me, V was gorgeous and sultry and possessed of a honeyed voice; and she would only date really good-looking college boys.

That is the context. Here is the event recalled by the dream.

Mrs. R stands before us, her outfit annoyingly salmon. She is, as always, trembling, a false smile pasted on her lips. “I was very disappointed in your essays on the first forty pages of The Scarlet Letter. Only a few of you correctly identified the primary recurring symbolism.” She smiles adoringly at V who is posed alluringly in the front row.

“Is it possible,” I say, speaking from my desk at the back of the room and neglecting to raise my hand, “that Nate just wrote the story without any symbolism in mind?”

A ripple of chuckles rolls around the deathly fluorescent chamber. Mrs. R grimaces. “I will remind you again to raise your hand when you wish to speak. I’ll take questions after V reads her essay.”

V rises to read, her slinky garb igniting our libidinous imaginations. She is totally at ease in her body, in stark contrast to Mrs. R, this being the raison d’etre of V’s life: to demonstrate her vast superiority over all us dunderheads. “Color,” she intones, sounding very much like Dusty Springfield singing The Look of Love, “is Hawthorne’s secret weapon; red, rust, and crimson his antidotes to Puritan gray.”

I gaze in open-mouthed contempt at V, for she has essentially quoted Mrs. R verbatim, only rendered the words in gooey singsong. I am tempted to say, “I may puke,” but something stays me, for the best is yet to come.

V takes us on a fourteen-page romp through those first forty pages of The Scarlet Letter, pointing out every word that either is or can be construed to be a variant on red until I and my fellow sufferers are driven to the brink of insanity, with Mrs. R and V exchanging simpering smiles with each crimson revelation.

Now comes the denouement. Deeply moved by V’s regurgitation, Mrs. R says, “Yes, yes, yes. The Scarlet Letter is unquestionably the greatest novel ever written.”

There it is: the ultimate challenge to the likes of me. A proclamation of such incomparable wrongness and badness and inanity, that I gaze around at my friends in disbelief that none have yet cried foul. Thus it is left to me.

“You can’t be serious,” I declaim. “The greatest novel ever written? Puh-leez. Moby Dick? A Tale of Two Cities? Zorba the Greek? All Quiet On the Western Front? To name a few.”

“I will see you after class and again after school, Mr. Walton.”

Here is where dream diverges from history.

In the dream I am simply no longer in the classroom or in high school, but in a bedroom with a woman who might be V, though she is older and rounder and not even slightly concerned about the symbolism in the first forty pages of The Scarlet Letter.

“I just want to relax you, honey,” she says, slipping her arms around me.

And hearing the word relax, I do relax; and that’s the end of the dream.

What happened in so-called reality was that I had to sit in Mrs. R’s classroom for an hour after school for the next three days and watch her and V and a few other pets enacting what I came to realize was a love ritual—sharing favorite poems, working on college application essays, having a sweet, feminine, confidence-boosting time that ultimately convinced me there was no point in fighting them. We were from entirely different universes and would travel through entirely different wormholes to get wherever we got.

And there is also this. I would have forgiven them entirely for everything if only V had given me the time of day.

Todd’s web site is UndertheTableBooks.com.